U.S. Casualties in Iraq Test Support for War

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, June 25, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The growing number of injuries and fatalities in Iraq is testing public support for the war.

Steven Kull is director of the program on International Policy Attitudes (search) at the University of Maryland. And that's today's big question — how strong is political support for staying in the war? Mr. Kull?

STEVEN KULL, INTL. POLICY ATTITUDES PROGRAM: Well, in a recent poll that we did with Knowledge Networks, more than 80 percent said that the United states needs to stay in Iraq as long as is necessary. And the expectation going into the war was that there would be over 1,000 casualties, so this is not going to throw the American public off. They are resolved. It's only, I think, if the Iraqi people come together in a way that convinces the public that the majority of them want [U.S. troops] to get out that they will withdraw.

Now that doesn't mean, though, that the casualties don't have consequences for President Bush, because remember only about half of the public was firmly supportive of the U.S. going into Iraq on its own. So now with these kind of casualties, it focuses the question, “Gee, was this such a good idea in the first place?” And with mounting casualties, there will be more questions focused on President Bush's decision-making.

GIBSON: It seems to be a drip, drip, drip process. Every day another attack. For a few days in a row, every day another American is killed.

KULL: Yes. That's a problem. And that bothers people. It focuses their mind. It makes them think, “Is this working? Was this a good idea in the first place?” If they come to the conclusion that it is the right thing for us to be doing now, they will continue to support it, and they will tolerate casualties. They don't think it's really an option for the U.S. to say, “Oh, well,” and walk away from the situation.

GIBSON: If walking away is not an option, does the public have any idea what the end is?

KULL: Well, their goals are very clear. They want to see a democracy in Iraq and they want to see human rights being protected. And as soon as they're convinced that that's what's in place, then they're ready for the U.S. to withdraw. But their expectation is that the U.S. is going to be there for about two years.

GIBSON: And when politicians return from Iraq the other day and start throwing around five years, is that likely to turn out to be a troubling number?

KULL: That's upsetting. That sounds like a long time, but these things unfold over time. And they're not looking to the door right now. The public is expecting this to take some time. They think there are problems, but they don't see that it's really an option to turn and run.

GIBSON: Okay. That's the issue of staying in Iraq, finishing the job. Was it right to be there? What about [the public's opinion] as it relates to the president who ordered this action?

KULL: Right. This is raising questions. There is some sign of downward movement in approval of the president and approval of how he is dealing with the situation, because, as I mentioned, only about half were confident that it was the right decision in the first place. And even today, only half say they think it was really the best decision. Another 15 or 20 percent say they support the president, but that's a kind of soft thing there. And so when they start having doubts about whether it was the right decision, then that has a negative impact on the president's perception of his leadership and his direction in this project.

GIBSON: Can the president count on the resolve of the American public?

KULL: He can count on it in terms of support for the operation. They're not going to go out on the streets saying, “Bring the boys home.” This is not going to be a repeat of Vietnam... at the same time, [President Bush] may lose the luster of success that he had when he went in. People are not so sure now that this is really successful, whether the casualties are proportionate to the gains that we have here. And so it can really soften the confidence they have in his decision-making.

GIBSON: Steven Kull of the program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Mr. Kull, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

KULL: You're welcome.

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